Tips for an Undergrad Looking to Get Involved in Research

The best advice I was given as I entered my first year of college was to make the most out of all the opportunities available at my fingertips. Living on campus and having a meal plan meant I had the luxury of devoting all of my time and energy into learning and exploring all the various things that piqued my interest, research being one of them.

At the time, however, research was a bit of a black box to me. I knew it wasn’t uncommon for undergrads to join labs as research assistants, but I had no idea what that entailed and what one had to do to secure such a position.

I figured I had nothing to lose and decided to give it a shot. Fast forward four years to post-graduation, I just kickstarted my research career by joining a neuroscience PhD program earlier this month. This is all to say if you are on the fence about trying something in college, just go for it! You have nothing to lose, and you might be in for a surprise.

General undergrad life advice aside, this article is aimed to provide some insight into how to go about getting involved in research and what are some factors to consider when joining a lab.

Most undergrads who are trying to seek research positions will prioritize landing any research position as opposed to one that seems to be a good fit for them.

I must admit that I myself was guilty of adopting this perspective when I was first applying to labs. At the time, I felt like I didn’t know enough to have figured out what I was truly interested in, but I also frankly didn’t care that much either. I just wanted to get my foot in the door.

Now that I’m on the other side of the fence though, I don’t think the way I went about it, which is the strategy that most undergrads adopt, was the best approach.

I think I got lucky in getting an offer from a lab that I would come to like, and I think there is value in taking the time to assess whether the lab is a good fit.

I know some friends who joined labs only to learn that they didn’t like what they are doing. This is valuable as well — to know what you don’t like — but it would save you both time and energy if you figured that out before you joined the lab in the first place.

So take the time to read up on the field and figure out what interests you. The traditional way to do that is to look at the department website and individually go through every faculty member’s page to see what they are working on. While this approach is a good start, there are other things you could be doing that bring more opportunities to your attention. Attend seminars that your department hosts, subscribe to newsletters, go to research fairs hosted by your university — keep your head up and look around until you find something that makes you excited, and then double down on that, dig deeper, and reach out to that lab after doing some background research.

A lab that you enjoy is one you will stick with for a longer period of time, ultimately allowing you to make a greater impact in the projects that you take on and get better letters of recommendation for whatever you decide to pursue next.

Different PIs (Principal Investigators) have different approaches to running their lab. During my time as an undergrad, I was part of two labs, both of which were quite different.

Lab 1

  • Undergrads are mentored by a grad student with whom they work exclusively on a particular project
  • Each grad student is in charge of their own project and works on it mostly independently
  • Little to no contact with other members of the lab or other undergrad research assistants
  • Undergrads are not part of the weekly lab meetings held amongst the PI and grad students
  • PI holds a separate weekly meeting exclusively for the undergrads in a seminar style format where key concepts relating to the lab are covered

Lab 2

  • Lab consists of grad students who lead their independent projects but also a couple of full-time employees who float around between projects and help out along various stages
  • Undergrads are assigned to one project, but they interact with all members of the lab as all members of the lab help out for every project
  • Undergrads are encouraged to attend lab meetings, but are not required to do so
  • There is no exclusive mentorship from the PI for undergrads specifically

You may prefer one over the other, and other labs may do things completely differently as well. This is all to say that it is worth putting some effort into thinking about what works best for you, since it will significantly impact your experience in the lab. Talk to the PI about their mentoring philosophy and talk to current grad students and current research assistants about their experiences; this will help to get an overall feel of the environment.

If you have done your research before joining the lab, there must be a reason as to why you want to work with that particular lab. Communicate that with the PI and the grad student that you work with; let them know what your goals are and what you hope to gain out of this experience. For some, that might mean completing an independent project and publishing a paper, which is a commitment of at least 1 year. For others, that might mean learning what it’s like to work with a certain type of animal or getting trained in a specific type of method like imaging, microscopy, DNA sequencing, etc…

Just because you communicate your goals, however, doesn’t mean that you will immediately get to work on what it is that you desire to do. As an undergrad research assistant at the bottom of the totem pole, you may be required to do some tasks that are rather tedious and time-consuming, but it’s part of “paying your dues” so to speak and learning the protocols of safe and responsible research.

But don’t let this discourage you. Read up on the area/technique you are interested in, ask questions to your grad student and PI, and most importantly, show an active interest in doing more than what they have initially assigned to you. That will give everyone confidence that you are both interested and capable of doing more, and soon enough, more opportunities will come your way.

Some lab assistant positions are paid, while most are not. It’s always more attractive to choose a paid position, but here are some things to be wary about.

If the position is paid, chances are the work that you will be doing is not very complex, and you might not be learning a lot. This is not a blanket rule, but from the people I have talked to who have held paid positions, they feel that their work is very repetitive and tedious, and after the initial few weeks, their learning has largely plateaued.

If you accept an unpaid position, then you are not beholden to work on what you have agreed to be paid for. You have more freedom to explore around the lab, work on different projects, observe different techniques, and more generally, focus more on learning as much as you can rather than being paid to do a particular kind of task.

I view a research assistant position as an opportunity to learn, not an opportunity to earn. You can always find an on-campus job at your university. If you do decide to accept a paid research position, then think about the things I mentioned above and be sure to ask the lab what it is that will be expected of you and whether you will have opportunities to do other things as well.

Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive guide of everything you need to know before you join a lab. But these are some things I only came to learn after becoming a research assistant, so it is my goal to make this advice accessible and help you choose the lab that’s the best fit for you. If you have more questions about research or anything else which you think I might be able to help you with, don’t hesitate to connect via Linkedin.

About me: I’m a graduate student at Brown University pursuing a PhD in neuroscience, and I am passionate about building brain-computer interfaces that can help restore movement or communication to those who are paralyzed. I am also a recent graduate of UC Davis, where I majored in cognitive science, worked in two research labs, and founded an undergrad neuroengineering organization, Neurotech@Davis.

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